The first thing in her environment she learned to recognise was the patch of bare skin on her arm. It was wrong somehow, in a way she couldn’t properly understand. She would peer at it as she clung to her mother, trying to puzzle out the markings seemingly etched into her flesh. She knew they weren’t a natural part of her, but she had no explanation for their existence, and had no way of articulating the conflict that warred in her young mind to others. Her mother had a similar patch, and markings, although hers were subtly different. By the time she grew old enough to begin making sense of the rest of her surroundings – just a few months – the mystery of the odd symbols was forgotten; accepted as a necessary component of her small, dull reality.
The cold was the dominant force in her life, and indeed in the lives of all the people. They lived on the edge of a vast, colourless steppe that stretched all the way to a bleak horizon, although their vision was not good enough for them to make out the divide between sky and earth. If it had been, they might have been able to make out the mountains in the distance, the promise of a better world than this one, but more likely their eyes would have slid past them, for they had no imaginative space for mountains; they were creatures of the forest, although none of them – not even Mother – had ever seen a real forest.
There were no trees here. None of them even knew what a tree was, except in as much as they felt the lack of them in their environment as a deep-seated longing. Unconsciously they reached upwards, and tried to clamber to safety when in danger, although there was nowhere to climb. For shelter there were the huts, ramshackle wooden things smeared with thick tar to keep out the worst of the weather, but even so they were little protection against the storms that lashed the steppe when the winter began and the sky grew dark for weeks at a time. Besides, the people disliked being indoors. It made them uncomfortable. The great expanse outside though was, if anything, even more terrifying. To be exposed under the open sky was a nightmarish prospect, so they compromised by huddling close to the walls of the huts in big groups, using each other’s body warmth to stay alive, grooming and softly comforting one another. They would have climbed onto the huts’ roofs, but they were prevented from doing so by the sharp nails and broken glass embedded in the guttering. So they were trapped like that, bound to a cold, terrestrial existence underneath the sky when they should have been sheltering in leafy canopies.
As she grew, she learnt the ways of the people, and of their confining universe. These huts here were for the mothers and their young. They stayed here while birthing and nursing. There were no adult males. They were across the muddy field in the huts there with the majority of the people. The two groups were separated by the terrifying open space, but eventually mothers would have to take their offspring back across when the time came for them to join the rest of the community again. There was another hut too, off to one side, but no one liked to look at that. None of this was explained to her, exactly, for the people did not naturally use words. They communicated with a complex mixture of scents, body language and occasional hoots and calls. It was a rich, multi-layered language, but limited in its ability to convey abstract concepts. Of course, the people were not truly capable of abstraction. They lived day-to-day, and the past was much like the future for them. Of all the people in the mothers’ huts, only one seemed to possess an inkling of such strange, otherworldly notions. She was Mother.
Mother was distinct from her mother, she knew that, but everyone treated her as if she was their mother, though she couldn’t possibly be. She was too ancient for that. Her shrunken, wrinkled body was almost completely bare of fur, she was subject to so much grooming by the others. Her pupils were milky-white and scars covered almost every part of her. She was much too old to bear children, but she was allowed to stay here with the mothers apparently. Mother said strange things sometimes. When she was just under a year old, she noticed that, alone of all the people she’d met, Mother had no markings on her arm. She tried to ask about it, but it was impossible for her to voice her curiosity. The Mother mumbled something that made no sense and went back to sleep.
Except for Mother, none of them had names. Names were not necessary, for they could all identify one another immediately by smell alone. But when she was able to walk upright by herself and stopped suckling and it was time for them to make the horrifying crossing to the other set of huts, she showed a remarkable lack of fear. She had always been more curious than the others, perhaps a little smarter, like Mother. She was not called anything, but one aspect of her being was communicated to the other people more than most – she was Fearless.
Life with the rest of the people was a rude awakening for Fearless. There was less food to go around in the larger group and now she could no longer rely on her mother’s milk to sustain her, no matter how much she tried to ingratiate herself with her again. She was no longer a baby though, and she must be accepted by the other people, not cling to the woman who had birthed her. In the main group, it did not matter who your mother was, she learned. Females became dominant by virtue of their physical prowess and ability to control powerful males. It was a complex, confusing hierarchy, and she realised that her mother was not highly regarded. Fearless would have to make her own way in the world now.
The food was poor. Tasteless vegetable lumps, sometimes with a little stringy meat. It was scattered around haphazardly, and on her second day with the main group of people, she realised where it came from and she encountered the Hairless Ones for the first time. She had never seen their like before. In some ways they resembled the people, but they had strange, smooth skin and flat, expressionless faces that were hard to make out through the oddly-coloured skin or hair that covered their overlarge heads. They smelled of something sour and tangy and their calls were shadowy, nonsense sounds.
“I didn’t realise it would be so cold,” one said.
“Well more fool you then.” The other one was called Boss. One of the people, a male a little older than her who might have been called Digger, had explained this to her. “Boz…boz…” he’d cringed as he pointed. That was enough for her to get it. Everyone was scared of Boss, even more than they were of the open sky. The people made an odd mixture of displays when he walked close – obsequiousness and submission, hostility and panic. He was the dominant male of the Hairless Ones, that much was clear, but what his relation was to the people she couldn’t properly understand.
“How can you stay up here so long?” The other Hairless One was pulling out food from a sack and tossing it on the ground for them. When he’d walked past and there was a good distance between them and Boss, the people would snatch it up greedily from the mud.
“It’s not so bad. You’ll realise that soon enough.”
“Not so bad? Paraffin lamps, no ‘net…”
“You could’ve stayed back in Moscow if you’d rather. How often do you get blackouts now? And how’s the crime rate, huh? I hear there are people starving in the streets too.”
“Sure…but if there was any other work, I’d take it. No offence.”
Boss patted his big belly. “We never go hungry up here. It might be a shithole on the edge of the tundra, but it’s not a bad life.”
“No women though…”
“There is that. But we have ways of dealing with those kinds of problems.” He nodded to the other hut; the one the people avoided looking at.
“Huh? I don’t understand.”
“Think about it, son. Do you want anyone watching you while you do what you have to do?”
“You mean…with each other…?”
Boss made a strange hooting noise and the people nearby, which now included Fearless, cringed back instinctively. He had a thing in his hand that he occasionally tapped against the black skin on his legs. Fearless didn’t know what it was but, like the hut, the people’s eyes slid over it. “Not that. The Zees.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“They’re the only women for a thousand miles, son. Everyone says the same at first but trust me, after a few months up here, you’ll consider it.”
Boss’s stink changed suddenly. He reeked of aggression and anger. The people were transfixed with terror. He grabbed the other Hairless One by the throat and pulled him close. “You think you’re better than me, do you? Fucking city boy too good for this shithole. You think any of us want to be here with these fucking apes? We’re all prisoners here, boy. This is just a gulag by another name. You’re here because you’re unlucky, because you can’t pay your way through life any other way. Same for the rest of us. We’re all victims of this used-up dirtball of a planet. No power, no food, nothing to do but breed and use up the last of what’s left. In the end, we’ll be apes like all these Zees, squatting in the ruins of what was here before. Until then, this is all there is. Just be grateful you only have to feed them and herd them into the mines. It could be you down there in the dark.” He let him go and the younger one slumped back, defeated. People and Hairless Ones seemed to assert their dominance in much the same way, Fearless noted.
“I didn’t mean anything by what I said.”
Boss’s voice softened. “I know, son. You’re scared and cold, like the rest of us. It’s not so bad though, like I said. Just do your job, drink yourself to sleep, think about going home in six months.”
He waved a hand in front of his face. His sack of food was almost empty. “It stinks here.”
“It’s them. The Zees. They just sit in their own filth. They won’t go far from the walls, and they don’t like going inside. They used to climb up on the roofs before we put the nails in. Horrible little bastards. Don’t get too close – they can bite you unless they know who’s boss.” As if to demonstrate, he lashed out with the thing in his hand and struck one of the people who was unfortunate enough to have strayed a little close. It caught him on the eye and a spurt of blood fountained through the air. He went down with a stupefied cry and writhed on the floor in obvious agony. Boss just hooted again. “See? Stupid animals. Only smart enough to dig and haul the uranium up to the surface.”
“Do they get sick?”
“From the radiation? Yeah, but they breed fast. They reject any of them who get it too bad and kill any young with obvious deformities. They’ve gotten resistant to it over the years.”
“What about us? Anyone here ever die from exposure?”
“You don’t have to worry about that. The closest you’ll get to the mine is the entrance. No danger to you at all. The only thing to watch out for is the tics.”
“From the Zees. Filthy things are covered in them. Most are harmless, but there’s a nasty one that carries some kind of virus. The doctor doesn’t know what it is. You get bit by one of those, we’ll be digging your grave before sundown.” He drew one of his stubby fingers across his neck for some reason.
“Do the Zees get the virus?”
Boss and the other Hairless One walked away with the empty food bag and the people pounced on the vegetables, fighting each other for the meagre feast. She saw many grabbing more than they needed and loping back to the huts with armfuls, looking around furtively as they did so. No one paid any attention to the male lying on the ground, bleeding from an empty eye socket. After a while his soft cries stopped and he became very still. Fearless watched him for a few moments longer and then went searching for food for herself.